In 1923, when the aviation industry dominated Los Angeles and the paint on the Hollywood sign was still wet to the touch, Rosa and Alejandro Borquez quietly opened a Mexican eatery on the city’s south side, ushering in America’s love affair with south-of-the-border cuisine. Their legendary El Cholo Café immortalized some of Mexico’s most beloved culinary offerings, centuries-old recipes reflecting both indigenous and Spanish influences that migrated north as Alta California became part of the American Southwest.
Mrs. Borquez’s fire-roasted poblano peppers stuffed with queso blanco and her pillowy flour tortillas folded around savory fillings became instant hits, launching food obsessions that would spread throughout California and across the country. Somewhere along their journey, the stuffed peppers surreptitiously slid in between the folds of a warm flour tortilla, and the chile relleno burrito was born.
The balanced textures of a chile relleno’s smoky frame stuffed with soft, melting cheese and dipped in a creamy egg batter before being fried to a delicate crisp has long enjoyed whimsical status as the molten cake of the Mexican foodscape — see the 1992 film Like Water for Chocolate for a walnut-cream version that will make you weep with delight. Enter the pragmatic roots of the humble burrito, which was popularized among the wheat-producing regions of Alta California, where flour tortillas were rolled out and stuffed with daily leftovers.
Thrown together, what you have is nothing short of a quixotic meal within a meal, the kind of fantastical request an 8-year-old might sling at you when asked what they’d like to have for dinner. Even in Santa Barbara, where tri-tip reigns supreme, the chile relleno burrito stands boldly among its meat-laden cousins, firing on all cylinders of comfort, decadence, and complexity.
At Los Agaves Restaurant (los-agaves.com), nods to the old 19th-century recipes of Puebla are manifested in a rich chipotle cream sauce poured over a delicate tortilla filled with savory black beans and a charred poblano chile. Sink your knife through the center, and you’ll be rewarded with a shimmering river of Monterey Jack cheese, held at bay by the large pyramid of Spanish rice that accompanies every entrée.
More is more at Super Cucas Restaurant (cucasrestaurant.com), where all of the usual external accoutrements can be found tucked neatly inside of a gargantuan flour shell, including creamy pinto beans, seasoned rice, pico de gallo, and two crisp poblano peppers wrapped in fluffy omelet blankets. Order yours in the morning, and they’ll even throw in a generous helping of roasted potatoes.
At Rudy’s Mexican Restaurant (rudys-mexican.com), the secret is in the sauce, an alchemical blend of garlic, tomatoes, and dried guajillo chiles simmered slowly in the early morning and poured over its burritos “mojado” style before being topped lavishly with a blend of shredded cheeses. The poblano chile takes center stage at Los Arroyos (losarroyos.com), stuffed with velvety black beans and a creamy queso fresco filling before being slow roasted until its ribs collapse in surrender.
In 2010, UNESCO inscribed the cuisine of Mexico on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, describing it as a “comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques, and ancestral community customs and manners.” Here in Santa Barbara, that tradition lives on in the kitchens of the city’s family-owned establishments and in their adaptations of a deeply intricate gastronomic history. Anyone hungry yet?